GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- When Mark Young picked up his telephone and couldn't understand a word that was being spoken, he knew something wasn't right.
The technical services manager at the Grand Forks Herald on March 30 stumbled upon a crime that a decade ago didn't exist and now costs businesses nationwide billions of dollars a year -- telephone hacking.
Between the night of March 26 and the morning of March 30, hundreds of long-distance calls were made illegally through the Herald's telephone system by people in the New York City area, according to Mr. Young.
He said that at the start of this month the newspaper was still trying to figure out how callers broke into the system, just where they called and how many calls they made.
The callers apparently telephoned the Herald on its toll-free line, then dialed a code that gave them access to an outside phone
line. At this point, they made their unauthorized long-distance calls, Mr. Young surmised.
Mr. Young suspected foul play the morning of March 30 when all the outside lines at the Herald were busy, preventing employees from dialing out.
He began eavesdropping through his personal telephone, which has access to the lines, and all the conversation he heard was in Spanish, a clue that something could be wrong.
Mr. Young quickly disconnected the telephone calls when he discovered there weren't Herald employees on the line.
Telephone logs at the Herald show that many of the calls were made to Mexico and several South American countries.
While it appears most of the calls were less than 20 minutes, Mr. Young said, one of the calls lasted five hours.
According to the federal government, telecommunications fraud -- including telephone hackers --costs businesses and individuals to $1.5 billion a year.
The telecommunications industry believes the actual figure is at least twice that. Many victims don't report it or never discover they've been ripped off, according to Alison LaBuda, a fraud investigator at MCI Telecommunications Corp., a Chicago-based long-distance telephone company.
Telephone hacking has escalated in recent years as hackers have become more daring and telecommunication systems have become more elaborate.
Hackers look for toll-free telephone numbers that are answered by a computer instead of an operator, Ms. LaBuda said. Then they program a computer to randomly dial thousands of numbers in hopes of gaining access to an outside line.
A hacker using a computer can crack a four-digit access code in two minutes. Once hackers know the code, they often will set up a bank of telephones in an apartment and charge people from $10 to $20 to use the unsuspecting company's telephone system to make long-distance phone calls. Sometimes, hackers use pay phones, Ms. LaBuda said.
New York seems to be the hot spot for hacking. Homesick immigrants are big customers. "They just don't have a lot of money and want to call home, and they feel this is just the cheapest way to do it," she said.
MCI has almost a dozen investigators in New York City who chase hackers and others involved in phone fraud, but Ms. LaBuda said it is difficult to catch them.
BEATING THE HACKERS
MCI Telecommunications Corp. fraud investigator Alison LaBuda offers these tips to elude telephone hackers:
* Become familiar with your telephone system and what it's capable of doing.
* Frequently monitor your long-distance records.
* If you have a code or password to allow you to access your phone system from an outside phone, make it as long as possible, and change it as often as you can.
* If you don't need remote access, don't have it.
* If you don't make international calls, program your system so these calls cannot be made.
* If you have a toll-free number but don't have any customers in, for example, New York or California, program your system so calls cannot be received from those areas.
* Make sure your employees know how the system works and how to protect it.